At some point your little one is bound to be overtired. It is inevitable. It will just happen despite your best efforts. For me it always shows up after a trip or a fun few days of activities where naps have been missed or bedtime is notoriously late or if my child has been sick. I am going to share with you my tried and true recipe to help your child overcome the overtired spiral and get back to good sleep and their happy little self.
The first thing you need to know is an overtired baby or toddler won't' sleep as well as normal. That means you may see early morning wakeups, increased nighttime wakeups, shorter naps or resisting naps or bedtime. The tricky part is to somehow prioritize sleep in order to help your child make up for the crappy sleep your child has been getting all while your child isn’t sleeping well. It is quite the balancing act.
So how do you prioritize sleep when your child is sleeping less than normal? There are no hard rules here and you will have to follow your gut. Every child and baby is different and what will help one baby catch up could not work for another. Below I will share a few suggestions of how I have helped clients and my own children recover from low sleep.
One of the most popular methods will be to put your little one down for naps and bedtime 15-30 minutes earlier than normal. The earlier nap will either mean a longer nap or if the nap is the same length it will mean an earlier bedtime. Remember that night time sleep is more restorative than naps, so don’t worry if naps aren’t longer or even if they are shorter than normal when you begin. If your child is taking shorter naps,, they may benefit from some delayed pickup after they wake from the nap. If your child is 4-6 months, delaying by 30 minutes is usually sufficient. For babies 6+ months I like to delay a full 60 minutes. And if your child is only taking one nap you can delay up to 1.5 hours after their short nap ends if you feel comfortable with that. Remember you get to decide!
Since your child is more likely to experience nighttime wakeups from not enough sleep I recommend waiting 15 minutes before you respond to any out of the normal nighttime wakeup. Fifteen minutes seems to be the magic number when it comes to a child or baby getting back to sleep on their own. If your child is still awake after 15 minutes and you want to respond you can! You can also wait longer depending on your comfort level. The fastest way to help your child sleep better at night (and consequently get caught up on sleep) is to ignore these short wakeups. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that by helping we aren’t actually helping. Let me share my own personal example when I forgot my own advice.
When my twins were about 2.5 years old, my husband and I took a trip to Hawaii and sent them to stay with Grandma. Naturally, once we were all home together we were all a little sleep deprived and needed to recover from that. Unfortunately, we also got sick shortly thereafter. The sickness, coupled with my desire to be super attentive to my children after being away from them, led me to run to them at night anytime they woke. Between the two of them I was getting up between 4-5 times a night. This continued on for weeks. No one was catching up on sleep. Eventually I came to the point where things needed to change and I decided not to run right in when they woke the first time of the night and just see what happened. The first time each twin woke that next night, I waited only about 10 min for them to get back to sleep on their own and was completely shocked when they both slept through their second normal wakeup in the middle of the night. Ten minutes! That is all it took for everyone to start sleeping through the night again, including me! Oh how I wish I would have started sooner!
Early mornings can be very tricky when trying to recover. When dealing with early mornings it is so important to know your child and how they will respond. For example, since recovery is all about getting good sleep to get back to normal, the first goal is sleep! If you know your child will sleep if you assist them that may be a great option and is something I like to do when the baby is younger (think around 4-5 months or younger). For some babies and especially older babies, if we go in to help in the early morning hours our child will just want to get up and we have just killed any chance of more sleep. For these babies (and let’s be honest, all toddlers) the best thing you can do is delay pickup in the morning until their regular wakeup time. Yes, it could take longer to recover because your child may not fall back asleep in the morning. Yes, that could mean the first nap is earlier. Remember to move that first nap no more than 15-30 minutes earlier and your best friend will be that early bedtime. I promise the answer to sleeping in is good sleep by going to bed early! Prioritize those naps and an early bedtime.
I continue the above suggestions until my child is showing signs of being well rested again. This often means waking happy, waking at an appropriate time and that nap lengths have returned to normal. I also want to see night wakings return to normal, and don’t forget to check in with your child’s mood during the day. Are tantrums at an all time high? Does 5 o’clock feel like the hour from hell? Then your child may not be completely recovered. I hope this helps you recover and sleep well! Bumps will always happen but we can get through them!
If you need some help navigating how to best help your child recover I would consider either a consultation (30 or 60 min) or if your child is sleep trained through one of the Little Dreamers Sleep Guides you can purchase a week of text support to get you all back on track!